Posts From March 2011

Speaking of Kansas City, KansasFest is an Apple-centric event full of personality. It’s “the world’s only annual convention dedicated to the Apple II computer.”

(Via MacStories.)

We may not have the Rocky Mountains, but in 2012 we’ll have amazingly fast Internet access.

Update: Here’s the official Google Fiber page for KC.

Instacast

There is a problem with subscribing to podcasts on your iPhone, and it has to do with iTunes. Here’s how it works:

  • You discover a podcast you like via one of many ways. Perhaps you are simply browsing the multitude of shows in the iTunes Podcast directory. Or perhaps you’ve come to a website promoting their podcast, or a friend told you about a certain one.

  • Once deciding you want to subscribe to that podcast, you end up on that show’s page in iTunes and you subscribe for free.

  • The show is added to your own podcast subscription list and the most recent show is downloaded onto your computer.

  • You are now subscribed to a podcast.

Now, if you want to listen to that podcast on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, you must plug your device into your computer and sync it. Making sure that your new podcast has been hand-selected to be one of the ones which sync to your iPhone.

Up until this point it all is fine. However, the frustrating part of subscribing to podcasts on your iPhone happens once you’ve synced the podcast and its episodes to your device. Because at that point the content on your iPhone becomes static — as if podcasts are treated like albums and episodes like songs.

Treating music or movies that you’ve synced to your your iPhone as static content is fine. I listen to the same album many, many times and only have my favorite albums and artists synced to my iPhone. But for a podcast, it’s like a radio or television show — I listen to it once and that’s it. With a podcast there is always something new to add and something old to get rid of.

We don’t listen to podcast episodes over and over. We listen to new ones as they get published. Out with the old and in with the new. However, when the podcast you are subscribed to publishes a new episode there is no easy way to get it.

The two ways to get a new podcast episode onto your iPhone are either: (a) tap “get more episodes”, be taken to the iTunes app and then pick a single episode to download to your iPhone, wait for it to download, return to the iPod app and play the episode; or else (b) sync your iPhone to your computer and transfer any new episodes which have downloaded to your computer onto your iPhone.

(If you are subscribed to more than one podcast, you have to repeat step “a” for each individual subscription, and manually download each new episode.)

When at my desk working I either listen to music or silence. There are only a few podcasts which I listen to on a regular basis, and when I do listen to them it is usually during some activity which has me away from my computer. Such as driving, mowing the lawn, or working in the garage.

Since I use MobileMe to keep my contacts and calendars in sync I rarely have need to sync my iPhone. Which means that up until a few weeks ago my Podcasts were virtually never up to date. If I was in the car and wanted to listen to the latest episode of The Pipeline I either had to plan ahead and sync or just listen to the most recent version I had on my iPhone. Which meant that in reality, I just rarely ever listened to podcasts.

Now, I realize that to have already written almost 600 words may seem like a lot to simply describe the awkwardness of trying to keep a podcast up to date. But: (a) I think we’ve all figured out by now that I have an affinity for writing about these types of things in detail; and (b) I’m trying to paint a picture for why I hardly ever listened to podcasts — up until a few weeks ago there was just no simple way to keep up with them.

A Better Way

What some people may not realize is that a podcast feed is just like an RSS feed. Which means that, when it comes to podcasts, iTunes is just a fancy (and bloated) feed reader.

This also means that apps other than iTunes can subscribe to podcast feeds. Instacast is one such app.

Instacast

Instacast is not the first iPhone app dedicated to managing your podcasts, but it is the first I have ever truly liked. Its most notable feature is that it offers over-the-air updating of your podcasts.

You can update all your podcasts at once, or just one subscription, or even just one episode at a time. It will update the listing of all the new shows their descriptions, length, and more. From there you can stream the episode right away or download it for listening to when you’re not online. Instacast even remembers your spot for each episode you’re listening to and you can resume where you left off — even if you were streaming.

To fill Instacast with your favorite podcast subscriptions you may want start by rescuing your current podcasts directly from your iPhone’s iPod app.

Tapping the + button at the bottom-left corner of Instacast’s home screen (the screen which shows your complete list of subscriptions) will open up the area of Instacast where you find and add new broadcasts. Tap on the iPod icon and Instacast will look up all the podcast subscriptions you’ve been syncing over to your iPhone from your computer and will then pull the feeds for those and subscribe to Instacast for you.

Moreover, you can search for a specific podcast, browse the directory of Popular1 or Just Added podcasts, or thumb in the URL of a podcast feed which is not public. Instacast even supports authenticated feeds.

Thankfully Instacast not only acts the way a dedicated podcast app should, it looks like it was designed in Cupertino. And once you use it a bit, it really begins to make the native podcast section of the iPod app look as if it was even less thought through. Meaning, Instacast not only works better than the native podcast functionality of your iPhone, it looks better too.

Side-by-side comparison of the all-subscriptions list

Side-by-side comparison of Instacast and the iPod app

Side-by-side comparison of an individual subscription

Side-by-side comparison of Instacast and the iPod app

After using it for a while it’s clear that it was thought through with this sole functionality in mind. Instacast has a much more elegant design for podcasts than the iPod app does, and it’s made the native iPod app feel bulky to me.

Another great feature is the price: just 2 bucks in the App Store. Which should make it a staple for even the most casual of podcast listeners.

Conclusion

I am as nitpicky about user interface as I am about user experience. There are some apps which, even though they offer a great service, I just never use because I don’t like to look at them. And on the other side you have those apps which look cute but are not very useful.

Instacast, however, is of my favorite breed of apps: one with pitch-perfect design and that does one thing and does it very well.


  1. The popular podcast list is populated by the podcasts most subscribed to via the other users of Instacast. It more or less reads like the What’s Hot list in iTunes for technology. Clearly, the iPhone-toting podcasts junky demographic is full of nerds.

Like these great shots from John Carey which double as wallpaper images.

A super clever ad by Penguin Classic Books. Not to mention that orange typewriter is more attractive than all of those laptops it’s sitting next to.

Master productivity with the power and finesse of OmniFocus using Creating Flow with OmniFocus. Kourosh Dini makes the daunting seem simple and helps you gain control from the smallest routines to the bigger goals of life using one of the most powerful productivity tools available today.

The Value of Twitter

Ben Brooks, in his article discussing the challenges that Twitter is facing at becoming profitable, writes:

We must assume that Twitter wants the service to remain free to users at all costs. [...] Making those assumptions means that Twitter has decided a large, vast, user base is better than a small profitable user base.

My short response is that yes, Twitter has absolutely decided that a large and vast user base is better than small and profitable one.

My lengthier response is that it’s hard to imagine Twitter ever expected to grow as fast as it has or become large as it is now. And now, in a way, I think that because of its growth, Twitter as a service has proven on its own behalf that having a large and vast user base is more important to Twitter the company than having a small but profitable one.

The strength of Twitter is in its simplicity (anyone with an SMS-enabled phone can post an update) and its enormous user base. And I bet that the founders of Twitter see its strength not just in what it currently is (an enormous and active social network) but in what it has the potential to be (an even bigger network with a scope far beyond just social interaction).

Twitter is used by real people to share moments, ideas, and news with their family, friends, and the rest of the world. The more people who use Twitter the more valuable it becomes. And the company gets this, because in an interview with NPR last month, Biz Stone gave us a glimpse of where they’ve set their sights:

We are now living in an age where there are 5 billion mobile phones. They all have SMS, they all are capable of accessing the Twitter network [...]

A network with 5 billion accounts? That would be unprecedented. I can’t even imagine it. Twitter would be more famous than Michael Jordan. Before they even grow to just 10 percent of that they are going to need a working business model — a way to support the staff and infrastructure necessary to keep Twitter going.

So far Twitter as company is struggling in their attempts to become profitable. A suggestion Ben Brooks gives in his aforementioned article is that Twitter could simply transition to a paid-only model:

Imagine that Twitter’s estimated 200 million user base was asked to pay $6 a year to use the service (something that would amount to $0.50 a month). I would guess Twitter would lose some users — let’s be brutal and assume they lose 70% of users instantly. That leaves the service with about 60 million users — a large drop.

That is 60 million paying users though, and at $0.50 each monthly that amounts to $30 million dollars in revenue each month.

$30 million in revenue each month would be great for the company. But I don’t think that’s how the company wants to make its money. Because turning Twitter into a paid-only service would be a huge disservice to many of its users, as well as its non-users.

It is quite safe to assume most Twitterers would never pay for the service. If it became a paid-only network they would simply sign-off and be done with it. I would be willing to stay and pay but only if many of the people I follow stayed and paid also.

The greatest value Twitter has is that so many people use it. I would not want to pay six bucks a year and be stuck with nobody to follow but a bunch of insipid corporations.1

However, Twitter is not trying to answer the question of who would or would not stay and pay. They are trying to find a business model that will support those who cannot pay so even more of them will sign up.

Because, in a way, going to a paid-only service would be similar to when Egypt blocked access to Twitter and Facebook for its citizens earlier this year. It may not be quite that intense, but I bet that’s how Twitter the company would see it. They do not want to keep one single person from being able to use their service. They see it as being too valuable to the world for something like that.

Here’s a prime example of why, from an excerpt of a letter Kevin Rose received from a friend who works for Apple in Japan sharing what happened at the Apple store after the recent earthquake:

7 hours and 118 aftershocks later, the store was still open. Why? Because with the phone and train lines down, taxis stopped, and millions of people stuck in the Tokyo shopping district scared, with no access to television, hundreds of people were swarming into Apple stores to watch the news on USTREAM and contact their families via Twitter, Facebook, and email.

Twitter as a service played a critical role in informing the world about the earthquake in Japan, as well as helping friends and families keep their loved ones informed of their status. The earthquake in Japan was not the first time Twitter has served such a role. And that is something Twitter as a company is very proud of.

Here is Biz again, from the same NPR interview:

“How a revolution comes to be is a mystery to me,” he says. “It’s important to credit the brave people that take chances to stand up to regimes. They’re the star. What I like to think of services like Twitter and other services is that it’s kind of a supporting role. We’re there to facilitate and to foster and to accelerate those folks’ missions.”

It would be regrettable if those who cannot pay were locked out from using one of the most powerful tools for global communication and information sharing there has ever been. The NPR writer adds that “Twitter purposefully allows everyone access because information — both good and bad — should be allowed to flow freely.”

There is no way the founders of Twitter could have expected their service to become as important to the world as it has. Though they need to make money to survive, they now they have a goal which, in their minds, just might be more slightly more important than turning a profit. And that goal is to build the value and nobility of Twitter as service by remaining free to users at all costs.


  1. A more popular suggestion has been that Twitter offer a “Pro” account and let users pay a small monthly fee to get some cool bonus features. Ben actually concludes with this suggestion, and many others have made it as well. But I am not writing this article to discuss the minutia of potential business models for Twitter. It’s an article observing what Twitter as a company sees as their most important goals, and how, in some ways, nobility and ubiquity have become of higher value than profitability.

…well, you don’t have an iPhone.

My thanks to TrackTime for sponsoring the RSS Feed this week. If you’re a freelancer working from you computer then TrackTime may be perfect for you. It’s an app for keeping track of lost-yet-billable hours by adding up all the time you spend in various applications, or even based on web history or iTunes history. Which means, for example, that if you forget to “clock in” you can use TrackTime to look back and see exactly how and where you’ve been spending your time and then add it up so you can bill for that work.

You can try it out for free for 30 days, or use the code SHAWNBLANC to buy it for 15% off until tomorrow, March 26.

Another great episode of The B&B Podcast. In this show Ben and I talk about what we call our “secret weapon” apps — those utility applications that are an integral part of how we use our Macs. Sponsored by the new and amazing iPhone app, Instacast.

Craig Good’s answer? “Dude, we’re pedaling as fast as we can.”

I think 11 feature films in 15 years is an amazing pace, especially when you consider the outstanding quality and lovability of every single one of the Pixar films.

I’m married to an introvert, most of my closest friends are introverts, most of my family is introverted, and many of the strongest leaders I know are introverts. For what it’s worth, I’ve taken that Myers Briggs test a dozen times and every time I score 10 out of 10 for extroverted.

Raise your hand if you miss the brushed metal. What, nobody?

Andy Ihnatko’s iPad 2 review. Best read on an iPad 2 with the Smart Cover in the accordion fold.

“A blog about the intersection of coffee, creativity, and design.”

I am so subscribed. (Thanks, @picdit.)

Seth Godin:

More and more, we’re finding it easy to get engaged with activities that feel like work, but aren’t. I can appear just as engaged (and probably enjoy some of the same endorphins) when I beat someone in Words With Friends as I do when I’m writing the chapter for a new book. The challenge is that the pleasure from winning a game fades fast, but writing a book contributes to readers (and to me) for years to come.

One reason for this confusion is that we’re often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work. The distractions come along with the productivity. The boss (and even our honest selves) would probably freak out if we took hours of ping pong breaks while at the office, but spending the same amount of time engaged with others online is easier to rationalize.

Seth proposes that we separate work devices from play devices.

It’s the exact same thing that Rick Stawarz wrote about a few days ago. He’s turning his iPad, iPhone, and MacBook into app-dedicated gadgets: iPhone for staying connected to work on the go, MacBook for doing work, iPad for play and leisure.

On my computer I do work email, personal email, website email; book-keeping and taxes and business-related tasks; reading; writing; project planning; task management; time management; research; and more…

It’s all done right here in one spot on one machine. It is certainly a distraction-prone environment — but it’s not just the bad distractions (like games or YouTube). It is so very easy to switch from work email to personal email back to work email all in the same sitting. But I don’t know if that is necessarily the best use of time.

I wrote about this somewhat last September when I wrote about how Inbox Zero is all about the outbox. I am always wanting to grow and excel in time management and living with focus, and this is something I’d very much like to write about and explore even more in the future.

My Growing To-Do List for shawnblanc.net Beginning April 4

  • Write a review of LaunchBar
  • Re-evaluate my approach to time management and how I get things done to best fit my new schedule and work flow
  • Slightly refresh and update this site’s design and completely re-code the WordPress theme from scratch for better load times and valid HTML
  • Write about the differences between how I use and approach Simplenote and Yojimbo
  • Finish that review of Instapaper I started last Summer
  • Write a review about the SSD I put in last Fall
  • Begin asking folks for their participation in a new minimalistic interview series I am planning to launch
  • Begin working on a long-form interview with… (?)
  • Reply to the emails in my inbox from those who are interviewing me
  • Join the Mac Developer Program
  • Install [Redacted]
  • Join the iOS Developer Program
  • Begin work on Book Number One
  • Design a t-shirt or two
  • Remind everyone that memberships are still very much available and more awesome than ever

Even though the Smart Cover auto-unlocks the iPad 2 (thus saving time in theory) I am still pressing that home button after opening the Smart Cover (out of habit I guess).

Pen reviews and “Ink Links”? This is a weblog for pen nerds.

Stephen Hackett is selling some very fun shirts. 100% of the proceeds go directly to support St. Jude Children’s Hospital, which has been treating Stephen’s son, Josiah (a.k.a. “J”), since May 2009 for a brain tumor:

St. Jude treats patients without regard of their ability to pay. That’s pretty cool. To put this into perspective, Josiah’s medical bills — after just 6 months — totaled almost a million dollars. After a year, he was at just over $2 million. Just stop and think about that. It’s pretty mind-boggling. Needless to say, St. Jude is an unbelievable blessing to families with children affected by diseases like Josiah’s.

Stephen is a stand up guy and St. Jude is an incredible blessing. If you’re looking for a new, fun shirt to wear this summer, and want your proceeds to go directly to a good cause, pick up a “Go J Go” shirt. I did.

Felix Salmon:

The pricing structure is also a strong disincentive to use the iPad app at all, of course. If you’re already paying $15 every four weeks to have full access to the website, why on earth would you pay extra just to be able to read the paper on its own dedicated app rather than in Safari? I, for one, prefer the experience of reading nytimes.com on the web on my iPad, rather than reading an iPad app which has no search, no links, no archives, no social recommendations, etc etc. If the NYT wanted to kill any incentive to read and develop its iPad app, it’s going about it the right way.

TrackTime enables Creatives and Web Professionals to identify and track lost billable hours. Unlike other timers TrackTime enables you to retrospectively assign billable hours from app usage, web history or iTunes history. TrackTime easily identifies ‘lost’ time by visualizing where you spend your time, allowing users to easily see for who and how their time is spent. 

See how much time is really spent tweaking, updating or just doing that tiny quick fix, then bill for it. 

shawnblanc.net readers can use the code SHAWNBLANC for 15% off until the 26th of March.

“It’s the T-1000 of corporations.” (Via Sebastiaan de With.)

Sure we’ve only had 4 episodes (5 if you count Episode Zero), but this one is my favorite so far. Ben and I talk about Ben’s trip to SXSW, writing for our websites, and some other fun stuff.

Episode 4 is proudly sponsored by Lithium 5 and Typekit.

Many, many thanks to Jitouch for sponsoring the RSS feed this week to promote Midori. Midori is a beautiful and powerful Japanese dictionary and translation app for iPhone and iPad. It has hundreds of thousands of entries, example sentences, and names to help you translate and learn Japanese.

Midori’s sponsorship was booked well before last week’s tsunami in Japan, but I can’t think of a more fitting app to be promoted on the RSS feed this week. And it’s worth noting that purchasing a copy of Midori means you’ll be directly supporting the work of a Japanese iOS developer.

You can pick it up for ten bucks as a universal app from the iTunes App Store.